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Masters: time to leave New Orleans

August 29th, 2008 - 2:16 pm

Dr. Jeff Masters hits the “get the hell out” button:

Today is the 3rd anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s catastrophic hit on the Louisiana/Mississippi/Alabama coast.  Unfortunately, I think that people living in New Orleans should mark the anniversary of Katrina by getting the heck out of the city.  You live at the bottom of a bowl, ten or so feet below sea level.  This is not natural.  Nature wants to fill up this bowl with huge quantities of Gulf of Mexico sea water.  There is a storm capable of doing that bearing down on you.  If you live in New Orleans, I suggest you take a little Labor Day holiday — sooner, rather than later, to beat the rush — and get out of town.  Gustav is going to come close to you, and there’s no sense messing with a major hurricane capable of pushing a Category 3 storm surge to your doorstep.  Don’t test those Category 3 rated — but untested — levees.  Conventional pre-Katrina wisdom suggested that the city needed 72 hours to evacuate.  With the population about half of the pre-Katrina population, that lead time is about 60 hours.  With Gustav likely to bring tropical storm force winds to the city by Monday afternoon, that means that tonight is a good time to start evacuating — Saturday morning at the latestVoluntary evacuations have already begun, which is a good idea.

Okay, he said “heck,” not “hell” (in contrast to my post three years & three days ago, also late on a Friday), but it’s the same button, and he pushed it.

Dr. Masters is a meteorologist, and a thumpin’ good-un, as Hagrid would say. He’s the co-founder of Weather Underground, and one of my chief sources of hurricane information. So, really, you should listen to him more than to me. That said, the only reason I would hesitate to push my “get the hell out” button is because, as I understand it, local officials — having apparently recovered from their epic display of gross incompetence in this regard three years ago — now have a staged evacuation process set up, which contemplates people leaving different areas at different times. If everybody leaves all at once, in contravention of that plan, I imagine there would be some potential for Rita-like evacuation problems.

But, on an individual level, Dr. Masters’s “beat the rush” advice makes a lot of sense. Mandatory evacuations seem quite likely to begin tomorrow. The odds of the forecast changing so drastically overnight that evacuations won’t be necessary tomorrow are, I think, quite low. The evacuation order is very likely coming; it’s a question of when, not if. Accordingly, there’s no apparent individual benefit to staying put an extra 12 or 18 hours. And there’s a distinct downside: you’ll be sitting in traffic a lot longer later. Moreover, in all honesty, if I were a New Orleans resident, I’m really not sure I would trust the local government to make these decisions for me. Like I said, they seem to be more “on the ball,” but…

Anyway, I won’t tell anyone else what to do — but, based on the information presently in front of me, if I, personally, were in New Orleans, I think I would follow Dr. Masters’s advice, and get the hell out tonight.

Having said all that, it bears reiterating — to prevent confusion, in the interest of full disclosure, and as a rebuttal to charges of “hype” or “running amok” — that Gustav may not hit New Orleans at all. It may, in fact, deliver a devastating blow somewhere else entirely. Or it may take a friendlier course to a more sparsely populated coastline, and/or fail to strengthen as much as we expect, and/or weaken enough before landfall that it’s a minor blip in the grand scheme of things. All of these scenarios are possible, and at the moment, virtually indistinguishable in terms of probabilities. As the National Hurricane reminds us in the 5pm EDT discussion:

DUE TO THE NOTABLE MODEL SPREAD LATE IN THE FORECAST PERIOD…IT IS ONCE AGAIN IMPORTANT TO RESTATE THAT IT IS SIMPLY NOT YET POSSIBLE TO DETERMINE EXACTLY WHERE AND WHEN GUSTAV WILL MAKE FINAL LANDFALL.

The reason for the present focus on New Orleans is not because the storm is uniquely likely to take that particular path, because that city is uniquely vulnerable to catastrophic flooding, and needs a longer evacuation lead time.Given the wide range of track and intensity possibilities, and the inherent uncertainty of hurricane forecasts beyond 24-36 hours or so, it is still far more likely, percentage-wise, that a calamity won’t strike New Orleans than that one will. But alas, that’s no reason not to evacuate, whether today or tomorrow. Forecasting technology is such that a calamitous direct hit is always going to be “unlikely” at the time when prudent evacuation decisions must be made in major cities. But the decisions still must be made.

When I urged people to leave the Big Easy on that Friday night in 2005, I stated, “Katrina probably won’t destroy New Orleans — but it could.” That was true then, and it’s true again now. But, as I said the next day back in ’05, “If you knew there was a 10 percent chance terrorists were going to set off a nuclear bomb in your city on Monday, would you stick around, or would you evacuate? That’s essentially equivalent to what you’re dealing with here.” I’m not sure what the percentage odds are at the moment, but unless they decrease drastically very soon, they’ll be high enough to merit evacuation.

As I said, I see no particular reason to hope for a sudden forecast change that would come soon enough to prevent an everybody-out order from Mayor Nagin tomorrow (assuming he does his job this time). If you choose not to pre-empt that order by leaving tonight, that’s your call — but certainly, when the order comes, it will be imperative to obey it.

P.S. I apologize for the delay in publishing the various comments this evening. Unfortunately, on this blog, I am required to individually approve each comment, and sometimes I’m away for my computer for a while. I will get everybody’s comments on as quickly as possible, but alas, there will sometimes be significant delays.

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